Like so many other Maui residents, Wayne Higa always drove past the old white church at the top of Wailuku town but never stopped by.

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That changed in the late 1990s, when his mother finally convinced him to come one Sunday. Although he didn’t attend services until adulthood, his family’s roots to Ka‘ahumanu Church stretch far back. It’s where his grandfather served as a deacon decades ago, and his mother and all of her siblings were baptized, too.

Once Higa started regularly going, it didn’t take long for the congregation’s kupuna to rope him into reading scripture. The church’s pastor at the time also led a parish a few miles away, so he was often late. Higa and the other members would be standing in front of the church as service was scheduled to start, wondering, “What happens if he doesn’t come?”

A photo of Ka'ahumanu Church in Wailuku, Maui
Ka‘ahumanu Church was named to honor Queen Ka‘ahumanu, who visited the congregation in 1832. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Over the years, Higa began leading services. One thing led to another, and by 2006, he was serving as the pastor, overseeing a flock of about 30 people — and the 1876 building where the congregation has worshiped for generations.

Most people know the little white chapel in Wailuku town, with the steeple that looms above the tree tops and the government buildings next door. But when it rains, water seeps through the tower. Deteriorating lumber needs replacement; the roof is getting there, too.

For the last decade, Higa and other church members have been trying to figure out how to find the money — and the expertise — to restore the building, but they’ve learned it isn’t easy protecting something with such a long history.

“Once these places are gone, they’re gone,” Higa said. “Then you just have the memories.”

Despite Maui’s shared focus on preserving the connection to the past, the process to restore its old buildings can be an enormous undertaking. It’s challenging everywhere across the U.S., but even more in a community where building materials, contractors and historical preservationists are harder to come by.

A photo of Ka'ahumanu Church in Wailuku, Maui
Replacing the church’s aging window frames is on the long list of projects. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

The members of Ka‘ahumanu Church are learning that firsthand. Last year, they were awarded $150,000 from the county of Maui, but haven’t been able to tap the funding yet because they’re still putting together construction plans and need to hire a contractor. State lawmakers also recently appropriated $125,000 for the church.

In all, members estimate they need $2 million to finish the work — a massive amount of money for a church that, like so many Maui residents, is “basically paycheck-to-paycheck,” Higa said. But for the pastor, it’s about so much more than ensuring that the building will still be here in the years to come.

“Part of understanding Hawaiian culture is understanding that sense of place,” he said. “(The church) gives people that sense of place — I know where I’m at because I can look out my window and see the steeple.”

A photo of Wayne Higa of Ka'ahumanu Church in Wailuku, Maui
Kahu Wayne Higa has served as the pastor of Ka‘ahumanu Church since 2006. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Ka‘ahumanu Church stood in Wailuku town decades before many of the other buildings around it were even a thought in architects’ minds. The land on which the church was built was once the site of a heiau, part of the royal compound of Kahekili and considered sacred by many. The congregation itself dates back almost 190 years, when its first reverend held worship meetings in a shed.

In 1832, Queen Ka‘ahumanu visited the congregation and asked that, when the permanent structure was finished, it be named for her, according to the church. It wasn’t until decades after her death that her request was honored, with the completion of the 1876 sanctuary that still stands today.

Almost a century later, in 1975, the church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was also added to the Hawaii State Register of Historic Places, a status that has aided the congregation in its search for grant funding.

A photo of Ka'ahumanu Church in Wailuku, Maui
Before the church was built, the property in Wailuku was home to a heiau. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

But raising the money is just one part of the challenge. For church members, undertaking a historical restoration also has meant spending hundreds of hours learning grant writing, analyzing budgets and figuring out whether they should be calling a surveyor, engineer, architect or contractor — or all of the above. They also ran into another obstacle: The architectural drawings of the building had gotten lost over the years.

“It’s not the easiest thing in the world to find a contractor capable of restoring a building this old,” said George Burnette, one of the congregation’s members.

Instead, church members have learned as they go. An architecture firm also agreed to help them for free. Now, with some grant funding and an idea of the amount of work that needs to be done, the pastor hopes it’ll only be a matter of time before restoration begins.

A photo of Ka'ahumanu Church in Wailuku, Maui
When it rains, the steeple leaks. It was damaged by a storm years ago. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Higa was born and raised on Maui and has so many memories of the places that have disappeared over the decades — the old fairgrounds and racetrack, where the Maui Mall now stands; the theater and post office at the edge of Spreckelsville that his family used to frequent when they lived in the plantation camp that was razed long ago.

But there are so many places, like Ka‘ahumanu Church, that are still standing.

“You just go through Wailuku town or Paia, or even Lahaina,” Higa said. “Many of those old buildings are still there, and it’s not that they can’t be fixed.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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